When engaged in repetition, singing a short melody over and over for example, it’s interesting to note how our attention engages and releases at certain points.
The first few repetitions may hold our attention, the next few may lose it, but then we might be surprised to find ourselves reengaging and going deeper.
I once saw Sun Ra and his band play a concert of songs from Walt Disney films. They ended the first set with “Forest of No Return” from the 1961 musical Babes In Toyland.
A few minutes into the song, the band stopped playing and the musicians all stood up and sang the refrain over and over:
Can’t you read, can’t you see
This is private property,
Aren’t the sign plain and clear,
No one is allowed in here,
But since you’re here you should know,
We will never let you go,
You can cry you can shout,
But you can’t get out.
This is the forest of no return
This is the forest
Those who stumble in,
Those who fumble in,
Never can get out.
They paraded around the stage for a few laps as they sang, and then continued to sing as they marched out into the audience. My attention went from focused to bored (after ten repetitions) and then to rapt (after twenty), at which point the many possible interpretations of the lyrics (references to a literal forest, comments on the modern world, the interactions between performers and audience in a club) began to resonate. The repetitions had taken me through the crucial transition state necessary to achieve this resonance of ideas.
An application of this principle is found in rituals where a song or recitation of words is repeated over and over. Liturgical planners, in my experience, are often too wary of repetition, fearing the first point of disengagement. They often fail to recognize that the next transition into deeper attention comes a few repetitions later. They could learn something from Sun Ra (and from traditions such as Sufi whirling). A repeated action, if given time, takes on a resonant quality.
Thank you for reading.